Paris, je t'aime
Once upon a time, I lived in Europe. During those years, I spent months traveling through 20-some countries, ravenously ingesting everything from the cosmopolitan hustle and bustle of cities to the languid charm of rural towns. I generally left a place satisfied that I was coming away with a good, over-arching impression of the culture. All except Paris, this is. Paris defies quick summation. Paris mocks guidebook encapsulation. Even after nearly a week’s visit, I left Paris haunted by the idea that so much remained unseen, untried, unexperienced.
Paris, je t'aime feels like a compilation of student films. I intend nothing derogatory by that comment. Indeed, “Paris, je t'aime” feels like an anthology of student films in the best possible way — imbued with a certain neophyte whimsy, vibrating with life and passion, and fresh in a way that can only come from unfettered enthusiasm.
The assignment was simple: 18 world-renowned directors including the Coen brothers, Gus Van Sant, Gurinder Chadha, Wes Craven, Isabel Coixet, Walter Salles, Alexander Payne, Oliver Assayas, Alfonso Cuarón, Christopher Doyle and Tom Tykwer would each be given three days to film a five minute segment about love in a different geographical section of Paris. This is not Paris according to Rick Steeves, but Paris as the Parisians know it — a city of breathtaking beauty tucked into alleys and hidden nooks none but the locals ever see. The intension was not so much to make a movie about love (or the loss of it) in Paris but to make a movie in love with Paris. The result is a sort of cinematic map of the City of Lights that burrows through the very rich and the very poor, the young and the old, the old guard haves and the immigrant have nots.
The all-star cast is a cornucopia of French, British and American talent, including Natalie Portman, Maggie Gyllenhaall, Fanny Ardant, Elijah Wood, Nick Nolte, Bob Hoskins, Juliette Binoche, Emily Mortimer, Catalina Sandino Moreno, Rufus Sewell, Barbet Schroeder, Ludivine Sagnier, Gena Rowlands, Miranda Richardson, Steve Buscemi and Gérard Depardieu. Heavyweights to be certain, they are comforting, recognizable faces in an otherwise exotic landscape, familiar touchstones on a unfamiliar journey.
From a downtrodden mime to a blood-sucking vampire, the shorts seem to run the gamut. Here a mother, stricken with grief, imagines one final encounter on the street with her dead son. Here a Parisian teenager discovers the flashpoint of love with a young Muslim girl. Here an American actress falls head over heels with a blind Frenchman. Here one African immigrant treats the fatal wounds of another. Here an English couple finds their relationship rekindled in the most unlikely of places — a cemetery. Here, a philandering husband decides to devote himself to his wife after he discovers she is dying of cancer. Here a middle-aged American woman reflects on her life as she travels the city alone.
These are but a few of the stories that comprise “Paris, je t'aime.” The separate segments are like individual words — somewhat nonsensical by themselves, but when placed beside each other, form a love letter to a city and its people. In the end, though the films are not linked in a traditional sense, one cannot help but come away with the impression that we are all — no matter our age or station or religion — intimately connected.
18 films feels like too many, and perhaps it is. But the cinematic pastiche we are left with is so charming and so enchanting, that all is quickly forgiven. There is something here for everyone. If you know Paris, prepare to fall in love all over again. And if you have never been, consider this your seductive invitation to a metropolitan romance unlike anything you’ve experienced before.
(“Paris, je t'aime” was the brainchild of French TV director Tristan Carné and film producer Emmanuel Benbihy. Plans are now underway for several more versions, among them, “New York, I Love You.”)
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